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Harm and Hunger: Operation Starvation

By Iona Soper Associate for Secure Scotland:

This blog was originally produced for Scottish ICAN in August 2020 as part of my coverage of, and participation in, the International Fast For Life that takes place between the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki each year. By asking why fasting is a relevant way to protest nuclear weapons, what these pieces seek to demonstrate is the ways in which militarism is intrinsically linked to hunger. Severing this relationship will require international upheaval and a global commitment to a humanitarian approach to security.

Why do we choose to fast?

Let’s talk about Operation Starvation, or, The Other Way They Won The War.

On 01 July 1946 - less than one year after the bombings - the United States Strategic Bombing Survey was released. The report was created by a group of experts, aiming to provide an impartial review of Anglo-American strategic bombing activities during the war. With regards to the atomic bombings of Japan, the report concluded:

“Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

This piece of writing has been intrinsic to the campaign against nuclear weapons as evidence of the fact that the atomic bombings were not - as is the historically popular account - necessary to bring about the end of the war in the Pacific, and that the allied forces were well aware of this. After all, US Ministry of War secretary Henry Stimson was later to comment “No effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb.”

But I don’t want to talk about that right now. I want to talk about the circumstances that made this statement so accurate. I want to talk about the other way they won the war.

‘Operation Starvation’ refers to a campaign of strategic mining by US Air Forces and the US Navy, in order to blockade, disrupt and destroy Japanese ports and coastal and shipping lanes. From the 27th of March 1945, the US Air Force laid 12,135 mines, sinking or damaging 670 ships. At more than 1,250,000 tons lost, Operation Starvation had sunk more ships per tonnage in the final months of the war than had been lost by all other nations combined.

Japan had already been victim to rigorous Naval blockading throughout the war, with allied submarinal forces sinking its merchant fleet, intercepting transports of goods and troops, and cutting off nearly all the oil imports essential to weapons production and military operations. Japan had already suffered some of the worst hunger of any of the nations during the war. Of 1.74 million military deaths from 1941 to 1945, as many as 1 million were due to starvation. Operation Starvation, much like the atomic bomb, upped the stakes of war by targeting the civilian population of Japan for suffering. Operation Starvation all but halted Japan’s import of critical raw materials and food. The combination of Naval blockades, the coastal mining and incendiary raids from the US Air Force over urban and industrial areas meant that Japan’s overall rate of production in 1945 sat at just one third of the figure for the year before. By 1945 the average Japanese citizen was living in starvation. One survey found that the average caloric intake for a Japanese citizen in 1945 was less than 80% of the minimum required for basic health and physical performance. It was predicted by experts of the time that by the end of 1946 the number of deaths by starvation would exceed seven million.

Japan had been stripped of all access to food and essential resources, and it’s population was weak and dying. Long before August of 1945, it was accepted that the prospect of continuing the war into 1946 was virtually an impossibility. Surrender was an inevitability. And then came the bombs.

The bombs destroyed many of the cities’ supplies and irradiated what it did not. Unbeknownst to the surviving populations, already living in profound hunger, crops, grains and even streams and rivers had become toxic and deadly. The damage caused by Operation Starvation continued to obstruct Japanese supply lines, hindering efforts to provide relief and distribute what little food remained. By the end of 1946, the average caloric intake for the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was at just 40% of the minimum required for basic health. In the months following the bombings, groups of evacuated children, now orphans, returned to the remains of the cities and lived there in makeshift camps in starvation. Survivors recall that some were so hungry, they died with stones in their mouths. Although an official count of Japanese deaths by starvation following their surrender in September 1945 has never been taken, a respected Japanese historian, Daikichi Irokawa, has written that "immediately after the 1945 defeat, some estimated that 10 million people were likely to starve to death".

Reflecting, 75 years on, I have to ask. How many more innocents had to suffer and die - are still suffering, and dying, all because the allies felt the need to win the war twice? This notion that the atomic bombings were necessary to bring about the end of the war is utterly prevalent in the collective mindset. I hear it most frequently in classrooms, when I have gone to speak about the experiences of A-bomb survivors, and it breaks my heart, because that’s where I first heard it too, from my teachers, and were it not for my circumstances launching me head first into the anti nuclear campaign four years ago, I’d probably still believe it now.

Not only do we need to evolve the way we educate the next generations about nuclear weapons, but we need to evolve the way we have conversations about security, both in public and behind closed doors. Public discourse has favoured the atomic bombings on the shaky grounds that they prevented even more widespread violence and starvation, as if, despite Japanese feelers for an amicable surrender, these were the only two options available. In April 1945, when Field Marshal Henry Maitland Wilson wrote from Washington that the US was eager to know British views on the approaching use of the atomic bombs against Japan, the following discussions from Westminster focused only on the phrasing of Britain’s assent.

When the suffering of millions is on the table, and peace has no place in the conversation, we need to start a better conversation.


Pacific Intelligence Report, 1945: Found in “The Decision to Drop The Bomb” (1996) - Dennis Wainstock

‘Operation Starvation’ (2002) - Gerard A Mason:

‘In Search of Silver Rice: Starvation and Deprivation in World War II era-Japan’, Michael Wright, 2010:

‘They Died with Stones in their Mouths: Hiroshima’s Last Survivors tell their Stories’, Elizabeth Chappell, 2019:

Frank, R. B. (1999). Downfall: the end of the Imperial Japanese Empire, found in: Japan’s War Economy and the US Strategy of Bombardment and Naval Blockade (2019), Onur Kanan:

Churchill and Hiroshima (2015) - Jacques Hymans:


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